SHARON REECE’S morbid curiosities lead her to standing at the property – not necessarily the house – where the forgotten mass murder commonly reported as “the Invercargill Tragedy” took place in 1908 and asks the question; how much do you really know about the history of your house? And more so, how much would you really want to know?
Mass murder is not your usual conversation over coffee at the local café. It is more the type of topic that fills the news for weeks and is talked about for decades. Such an instance has the ability to leave a black-mark on a town long after the crime is committed.
Yet it appears Southland’s biggest mass murder has simply been forgotten.
Te Ara, the encyclopaedia of New Zealand, carries no reference to it despite having a section on mass murders. The police files and property files are long gone. Any remaining references to the “Invercargill Tragedy” disappear after a month or so of the murders. Like a bad dream, it is forgotten.
With no major landmarks or amenities, Crinan Street, Invercargill, can be easily overlooked on the grand scale of the city’s streets. The South City street is much like any other, boasting an empty reserve, an abandoned school and an abundance of aging houses.
What Crinan Street does have, however, is a secret that shades a corner of history for the City of Water and Lights. But how has Invercargill’s biggest mass-murder been forgotten by a nation? It is a question which has even the experts scratching their heads.
James Reid Baxter is a name virtually unknown to Southlanders. Before 1908, Baxter was a wealthy seed merchant and good friend and neighbour to the city missionary, Archibald McLean. Before 1908, Baxter was a prominent member of society and a man who loved his wife and five children.
After Wednesday, April 8 1908, James Reid Baxter became known around New Zealand as the man who woke during the night to systematically butcher his entire family.
Newspapers around the country used the poetic license of the times and graphic narrative to describe the grisly scene:
“A GHASTLY DOMESTIC TRAGEDY: Father and three children dead. Mother, daughter and baby unconscious. J. Reid Baxter attacks his sleeping family and then blows his head off – A house of horror,” wrote Hawkes Bay’s The Weekly Times.
Tuesday night was just like any other for the Baxter family. It seemed as though the family had gone to bed in the usual manner. Mrs Baxter had washed, ironed and folded the family clothes as was her normal housewife routine. Basil, 9, and Roy, 4, were put into the double-bed they shared. Phyllis, 11, shared a room with her two-year-old brother Ronald. Across the hall Baxter and his wife Elizabeth had laid their new-born, John, in his cot before going to bed.
On Wednesday morning, city missionary and neighbour to the Baxters, Archibald McLean noticed a lack of movement coming from what was usually a busy household next door. Having been closely acquainted with the family, McLean went to the property and peered through the window of the young boys. Lying in bed, the faces of the boys were undisturbed. It was the pillows caked in blood and the lifelessness of the children that caused McLean to run to the nearest police telephone to call for help.
“I accompanied Sergeant Mathieson into the house, entering by the front window. We made a hurried examination of the two bodies in the front room and found life extinct. In the room immediately behind it Roy was dead in bed and Phyllis was on the floor alive but unconscious. She was lying on one elbow and one hand with the other hand stretched out in front of the other. We next entered Mrs. Baxter’s bedroom. As we went, in, she raised herself, turned towards the door and said “what is the matter”. She then sank back unconscious. The baby was in the cot alongside, also unconscious. Having found that three of the inmates were alive, I hurried back to the telephone, and hurried up the ambulance and doctor…we then continued our search. The door into the scullery through which the bathroom was reached was locked. We went outside and looked through the bathroom window, seeing a body in the bath…” said McLean during the coroner’s inquest.
Baxter had used a 30cm long stove scraper to kill his three sons and left his wife, daughter and new-born baby clinging to life. He then proceeded to half fill his bath tub and blew his head off with a single-barrelled breech-loading shotgun, falling back into the filled bathtub to ensure his own demise. Although the three survivors had been expected to pull through, each died within weeks.
Little information could be found about Baxter prior to committing the crime, other than the fact he was a successful businessman who had emigrated from England to New Zealand.
It was known that just weeks before the murders he had suffered from British cholera.
Baxter had been behaving oddly after his illness, and this was noted in the witness testimony to Stout’s inquest. George McCarter, who worked for Baxter, said Baxter had been ill for about a month before the killings, and seemed depressed in the two weeks preceding the murders.
At the coronial inquest which concluded in May 1908, William Anderson Stout, the acting coroner (and first LLB graduate from the University of Otago) found Baxter had killed himself and his family while in the grip of “impulsive insanity”.
As there are no other documented cases of cholera leading to insanity, the reason behind Baxter’s depression and subsequent killing spree remain known only to him.
Nearly three weeks after the tragedy, an Otago Daily Times Bluff correspondent noted that Baxter had been seen in Bluff just weeks before the tragedy.
“He spent the day in the bush, and on returning in the evening, minus coat and vest; showed two rather nasty wounds, one in the head and another in the arm. A proposal made to dress the wounds was stoutly resisted by him, and he left without any provision…He was, however, supplied with a coat and vest. Strange to say, these arrived back to their owner at the Bluff on the morning of the tragedy.”
For a few weeks after the murders, the “Invercargill Tragedy” was mentioned in papers throughout New Zealand and Australia. Once Phyllis Baxter, the last surviving member of the family, died on April 22, the Baxter’s lives and deaths seemed to have been erased from history.
Lloyd Esler is known for many things in Southland. He is a city councillor, teacher, historian and the author of a number of books about Southland. Esler is working on a new book called Dead and Buried in Southland. It is a collection of unusual deaths, strange burials, lonely graves and missing people. Yet he, and other local historians knew nothing of the Baxter tragedy.
Perhaps it is morbid curiosity that leads people to visit the grave of Minnie Dean or the streets in which the Aramoana massacre took place. No such attention surrounds the Invercargill tragedy, because no one seems to know it ever happened.
Lloyd Esler could list bank robberies, kidnappings, homicides and even petty crimes throughout the history of Invercargill. He could say what was happening in the city in any given era; who was mayor, which parts of town were being developed in what year. When questioned about Baxter, he came up empty.
The research for this story went from Esler to one expert after another; librarians, archivists, museum curators and historians. Endless hours of dredging through online articles, books, coronial records, property files and library archives; speaking with anyone willing to weigh in on the subject, produced very little.
Many newspaper records, police files and medical records could not be found. It seemed as though any information surrounding the topic had vanished. The ancient coroner’s report shed little more light than what was reported at the time.
Southland Museum and Art Gallery’s history curator David Dudfield seemed intrigued by the mystery and searched museum records in hopes of shedding some light. The museum held many old newspapers and historic photographs. Just not for 1908.
“Unfortunately it’s not looking too promising for any extra leads on Baxter. Our newspapers and directories don’t cover the period of the murder and our photographs seem to be all facing the wrong direction,” Mr Dudfield said.
Mr Dudfield could give only his opinion, which was Invercargill having had a “Victorian ‘don’t talk about it’ mentality”; that the city mourned and moved on.
The only mention which could be found of the Invercargill tragedy since 1911 was made by Mr Esler in an ‘About the South’ article in the Southland Times in 2013. Mr Esler said he had stumbled across an old article while doing research for a book.
The ‘violent crimes’ section of the Te Ara – Encyclopaedia of New Zealand website has a section dedicated to mass murders in New Zealand which states there were only four mass murders, involving 20 victims in total before 1990. However, the Baxters weren’t listed in this section, giving an indication of just how omitted the tragedy has become.
For more than 100 years, James Reid Baxter’s awful crime went without thought; he and his family, forgotten.
In an unmarked plot at the Invercargill Eastern Cemetery lie the bodies of John, Basil, Roy, Ronald, Phyllis and Elizabeth Baxter. In the very same plot is the man who raised them, cared for them and for reasons unknown, took their lives.
No mention was made of a funeral or family and friends. No history books to record the atrocity which took such young lives. No record of whether their house was demolished or whether it still stands, lived in by someone unaware of the horrors it once held.
In recent times Invercargill residents have begun to embrace the city’s history, celebrating its heritage in all different forms. It’s interesting to think, if people keep digging, what might resurface? If a city can forget one of its biggest tragedies, what else is hidden in the deepest corners of our archives?
Perhaps the Weekly Times gave the best explanation of all:
“Unheard, unsuspected, there happened in a quiet Crinan Street one of the completest and most ghastly tragedies that have ever occurred in New Zealand. No motive can be reasonably suggested, no explanation may be justly given. Men do these things sometimes and those who hear and see can only shudder and wonder and then try to forget…”